Are filters even necessary for landscape photography anymore?

Oct 6, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Are filters even necessary for landscape photography anymore?

Oct 6, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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This is a topic that seems to come up every few years. As sensors increase in dynamic range, ND grads sometimes aren’t so essential. Raw processing software becomes more capable with each new release. Even filters that cut through haze aren’t always needed. But what about things like circular polarisers and big ND filters for super long exposures?

In this video, landscape photographer Thomas Heaton offers his insight and thoughts on the question. When it comes to polarisers, Thomas is of the opinion that they absolutely are necessary. It’s an opinion I share. The function that they serve just cannot be reproduced in post. But what about the rest? Watch the video to find out.

YouTube video

When it comes to neutral density and ND Grads, the answer is pretty clear. No, they’re not really needed. Digital technology offers us techniques and advantages that we didn’t have with film.

Instead of taking a single long exposure shot with a lot of stacks of ND over our lens, we can now lock our camera off on a tripod and take a 30 or 40 shots over the same duration, and then combine them in post to produce a near identical result. It’s a bit like the time stacking technique we posted about not too long ago.

As for ND Grads, these can be replaced by bracketing your shots and then using either HDR or frame blending techniques in post to get a similar final look.

So, why does Thomas use them? And why do so many other people, myself included, still insist on using them? Sure, I can blend 50 images in post to get a shot almost identical to slipping an ND filter over my lens and just taking a single long exposure. But at what cost? Time. Essentially it boils down to workflow efficiency. It cuts down on the amount of time you have to spend sitting at the computer. This leaves you more time to shoot and enjoy life.

thomas_heaton_nd_grad

Shooting a lot of exposures at the scene isn’t going to save you any time. If you want to shoot a 2 minute long exposure, it’s still going to take 2 minutes to take each of those individual pictures. With a single long exposure shot, however, the post processing can be done in a few minutes. If I have to wait for Photoshop or another application to stack all these images on top of each other and blend them, before I even start tweaking it to my liking, that’s a lot of time wasted. And it’s less time I have to do other things.

Same goes for ND grads. Sometimes, the answer may be as simple as applying a grad in Lightroom or ACR to a single shot before it comes into photoshop. But if I have to merge multiple exposures, I’m not going to take the easy HDR router. The results just rarely give me what I want. So, it’s manual frame blending with luminosity masks and other techniques. Suddenly, what might take 3 minutes using an ND grad suddenly turns into 3 hours without one.

So, like Thomas, I’ll still continue to take my filters out with me. Are they essential? Other than the polariser, no, they’re not. Do they make my life a whole lot easier? Well, yes, they do.

How about you? Do you use filters? Do you agree that polarisers are still essential? Have you ditched your NDs and grads in favour of spending more time at the computer? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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16 responses to “Are filters even necessary for landscape photography anymore?”

  1. Chris 'Sharky' Wright Avatar
    Chris ‘Sharky’ Wright

    Yes

  2. Florian Hartmann Avatar
    Florian Hartmann

    It’s always great to see articles about youtube videos…not. -.-

  3. York Augustin Avatar
    York Augustin

    Yes, of course!

  4. Eric Avatar
    Eric

    “… in post” ahh, the last vestige of the millennial generation – why actually do the hard and satisfying work of getting it ‘right’ in camera when you can mouse click your way to ‘good enough’…

    1. catlett Avatar
      catlett

      What is right? Is there even such a thing as right? If so then photographers really aren’t artists and there will eventually be a camera that does it “right” with no human needed. In reality, multiple exposures does hold some advantages. I choose not to use graduated NDs anymore (and I have a very nice Singh Ray set) because horizons are very rarely straight line. My choice has nothing to do with good enough. I get better results blending exposures than I can get with a graduated ND when there is not a straight line horizon because I don’t have a filter blocking dark tones in those areas. As was indicated in the article and video circular polarizers aren’t something I can deal with in post so I use those. Haven’t used UV or skylight filters for as long as I can remember.

      I’m actually a baby boomer who grew up with manual everything including processing my film and printing. This isn’t necessarily a young person, instant gratification issue. I get as much gratification in post as I do in capturing. This really old guy who never met a millennial named Ansel Adams used to as well.

  5. catlett Avatar
    catlett

    3 hours for an HDR? What processor is in your computer? The purely HDR portion of the image processing should not take very long.

    1. Ken Kruse Avatar
      Ken Kruse

      Perhaps you misread the article. It clearly states that he does not take the HDR route, the 3 hours is for manually blending an image.

      1. Michael Chastain Avatar
        Michael Chastain

        It’s still a silly comparison. To recreate the effect of a GND filter from a couple of exposures takes a few minutes at most. Now you could easily spend 3 hours masking a complex subject for manual blending, but at that point you’ve gone FAR beyond what you could do with a simple GND.

        1. catlett Avatar
          catlett

          Exactly

      2. catlett Avatar
        catlett

        I see what you are saying but in reality if it takes that much blending time then the graduated ND isn’t going to give good results either because it is going to block a lot of darks in any image that requires 3 hours of blending. In reality high dynamic range is very rarely neat and tidy enough for a graduated ND. If you are looking at a seascape then yea. If you are looking at mountains or anything with trees or other scenes where there isn’t a pretty flat horizon then no.

  6. Laurent Roy Avatar
    Laurent Roy

    NDs can’t be replaced when it comes to needed long exposure, like when wanting to show a water flow blurry… ;-)

  7. Patrick Shipstad Avatar
    Patrick Shipstad

    I absolutely agree with getting as much in camera as you can. Especially when it comes to controlling glare with polarizers and the exposure range of the sky and the landscape by using grads. Great video.. thank you!

  8. Cy Cox Avatar
    Cy Cox

    Anymore?

  9. Robin Avatar
    Robin

    A great video from a very talented landscape photographer, he is going to go far.

  10. Ralph Hightower Avatar
    Ralph Hightower

    A polarizer definitely produces versatile results. I also use yellow, orange, and red filters when shooting B&W film to increase contrast.

  11. MichaelGoodwin Avatar
    MichaelGoodwin

    I am an extremely technical minded person in so many areas of my life but when it comes to taking pictures I hate it. I bought into Olympus when I first got back into photography a couple of years ago because I thought all the in camera features would appeal to me and keep me a happy shooter. But a very expensive two years later I have gone to the very simple Canon 5Ds full frame and two lenses. The Sigma 35 f1.4 and the Sigma 70-200 f2.8 Sport. I went Sigma because in my opinion they have a MUCH more “classic” ball bokeh. That is my thing. I also collect old soviet lenses because I can see my image right then and there. Not in computer. I need to be hands on and where I am when I am shooting in the field and not thinking about what I am going to do later in the studio. Simple things like exposing to the right and so on sure but constant out of camera HDR and bracketing is just no fun for me. I thought your video was on the money.